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Hurdles On The road To Greatness

 

Rupert Kinnard '79

 
Rupert Kinnard '79 sees life differently since becoming paraplegic but says, "I would not give up one minute of the last five years." Known at Cornell as the creator of "The Brown Bomber" cartoon, he how owns the Rupe Group Graphics, a Portland, Ore., design business.

Click here for the UNCUT version of this story

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.
—Malvolio, in Act 2, Scene 5,
of
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Well, I admit that I—like so many of us—am continually aspiring toward greatness. Nonetheless, I relate to the above quote because, given my present way of life, it seems clear that I am one who has been born black, achieved an understanding of my homosexuality, and has had a handicap thrust upon me.

In late 1953, my mother was pregnant with her second child. Birth was certainly not guaranteed, nor could my parents know whether the child would end up male or female. What was certain was the fact that both my parents were considered “Negroes”—as it was stated on my birth certificate—and if a birth did indeed occur, the child would be a Negro.

That was a given.

I was born on July 21, 1954, a healthy, African-American (my personal label) boy. I know my parents had the usual hopes many parents have for their firstborn son. And becoming aware of what was expected happened fairly early for me, as did realizing who I was as a person.

Neighbors joked with my mother once it was apparent I didn’t want to play with the little girl next door. They’d say: “Oh, that’s cute. Wait until he’s older. He’ll want to do more than just play with girls.”

Though my reaction could’ve been an indication that I was quickly on my way to becoming a loner, rather than a matter of not being interested in girls, I remember thinking, “Ha! That’s what they think!”
As I grew older, people noted that I was a very creative child who liked to work on projects alone. Every once in a while my father would wonder why his son never played ball with the other guys. (He never seemed to wonder, though, about not being there to expose me to the possible joy of the games. He was committed to providing for his family and often worked a number of jobs from early morning to late at night.)

I was teased in my early teens for being different from most of the other boys. But I was blessed with a knack for celebrating difference rather than being so freaked out that I would do anything to be the same as everyone else. It was very comfortable to acknowledge (to myself) that I really appreciated males much more than females seemed to appreciate them.

Being black
Moving out of the projects (à la television’s “Good Times”) and into Chicago’s South Side with the first wave of integration brought forth a very rude awakening for me as a black youngster.

Getting up one morning and relishing a front porch that our family could call our own, I said good morning to the white woman next door. She glared at me and rushed back into her house. I really didn’t understand.

Another rude awakening came from an incident after I had enrolled in an elementary school that was transitioning from an all-white school to what eventually became an all-black school, due to “white flight.”
After being pushed by a white boy, I responded, “Niggah, what’s wrong with you?” I didn’t understand when white kids nearby burst into laughter, gleefully telling me I had a lot of nerve using that word on a white boy.

Up until that moment, I thought the term was just about interchangeable with the word chump. It was a painful realization that the word did not pertain to them at all, and I quickly learned the history and viciousness of the word when used by whites against black people.

Life changes in an instant
Well into becoming an adult, my blackness and the awareness of my sexuality helped me to understand the plights of others. I had also been confronted with that question of which was worse: the hatred I experienced as an African American or the bigotry I encountered as a fairly open gay man. I was challenged by issues of racism and homophobia I found myself struggling with during my Cornell years. But nothing prepared me for what was to come.

In early April 1996, my beloved grandmother passed away, and I traveled to Mississippi to attend her funeral. The day after the services—Easter Sunday, April 7—driving from one small town to another to visit my family, I approached a curve in the road where an approaching car veered into my lane. I swerved sharply and ended up bouncing in and out of a ditch along the side of the road. The accident crushed my spinal cord.

I was transported via helicopter from the tiny town of Clarksdale, Miss., to a hospital in Memphis, Tenn. All of my family members were by my side, having gathered in Mississippi for my grandmother’s funeral. I am fascinated by what can be observed retrospectively through my eyes as a gay man in this unique situation.

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